The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Muted polls under rebel shadow

As the first phase of the Bihar Assembly elections begins on October 18, the situation is unusually quiet but tense. Along the state highways, hardly any party poster, banner or flag can be seen. Loudspeakers remain switched off. Cars and buses transporting poll officials and police personnel are the only signs of an impending poll. Such lacklustre electioneering has rarely been seen before.

Tension is building up beneath this apparent calm because of apprehensions about possible Maoist attacks on election day. The Bihar-Jharkhand Special Area Committee of the CPI (Maoists) has called upon people to disrupt the polls. A leaflet of the Jan Pratirodh Manch, an organisation close to the Maoists, urges people to boycott elections and support the revolutionary agrarian struggle. At Jehanabad, a Maoist stronghold, no “election boycott” poster was seen.

The torching of a Rashtriya Janata Dal vehicle at Jhaja on October 14 remains the solitary evidence of Maoist violence against poll campaigners so far. Sources in the Gaya-Jehanabad belt say local cadre are still waiting for the green signal from the top leadership.

Both the main contenders in the poll battle ' the RJD of Laloo Prasad Yadav and the Janata Dal (United) of Nitish Kumar ' avoid mention of the Maoist problem in their respective poll manifestos.

The state government, however, does not intend to leave anything to chance. More than 60,000 central paramilitary forces are already in place in sensitive areas to assist the local police forces.

Earlier, the Election Commission planned polling in 61 seats in 12 Maoist-affected districts in the first phase itself to ensure maximum security. The EC has now ordered that polls in four of these seats ' Belaganj, Gaya rural, Gaya town and Bodhgaya ' will be held separately on October 21 to enable more force deployment in the rest of the districts.

At Masaurhi, another old Naxalite bastion, we look for the reasons behind such a low-key poll campaign. Most candidates face a serious resource crunch after spending a fortune during the last February polls, explains Ajay Kumar, a retail pesticide shop owner. They lack the cash for running a colourful poll campaign, he adds. Some political parties, of course, blame the EC for imposing too many restrictions on electioneering.

“Election campaign has been reduced to a lifeless exercise because of EC orders,” affirms Kanchan Bala, an RJD leader and a veteran of the JP movement. The EC has even curbed the right of ordinary workers and supporters to hoist their party flags on their cycles, motorcycles and cars, she says.

Back in Patna, we find P.K. Sinha, a retired college teacher, talking approvingly of the EC tightening the screws to stop poll malpractice. How can people show enthusiasm for an election that asks them to choose only between old feudal forces and newly-emerged political lumpens, he asks.

Around the countryside, lack of zeal for another election that has been thrust upon the voters within a short span of eight months is evident.

Nonetheless, the villagers are generally well-informed about the different parties and their nominees. At Vikram, Kanchan Kumar, a village youth, says Anil Kumar, the Lok Janshakti Party winner in the February poll, has switched his loyalty and is now contesting as a BJP candidate.

Young men mostly belonging to upper castes assert that Laloo Prasad’s misrule must come to an end and Anil Kumar, a Bhumihar, will triumph once again. The RJD nominee also hails from the same powerful caste and happens to be a rich contractor. The LJP campaigners on motorcycles, too, do not appear to be confident about their candidate.

If the experience of the Vikram constituency is any indication, the LJP may end up losing some seats it won last time. The surprise is that nobody expresses any resentment against turncoats like Anil Kumar. “Moral issues do not matter in the polls,” laments Krishna Prasad, a 60-year-old OBC small farmer who has been teaching voluntarily at the local school for the last 25 years.

Krishna’s neighbours admire his selfless service but none seems to be willing to follow in his footsteps.

Despite taking adequate security precautions, the top police officials are keeping their fingers crossed in view of the substantial striking capability of the Maoists.

“They will definitely make efforts to show their strength by striking on polling day,” says a senior police officer in charge of election security. He, however, argues that the Maoists can ambush patrol parties only after us- ing “improvised explosive devices”, commonly termed landmines.

It is largely an issueless election as well in the rural hinterland in spite of the BJP-Dal (U) attempt to bring to the fore a development question.

In urban areas, there is considerable indignation among the middle classes against the goonda raj patronised by Laloo Prasad’s brothers-in-law Subhash Yadav and Sadhu Yadav. Urban residents, fed up with the extortion racket run by them, are expected to overwhelmingly vote against the RJD cutting across caste lines. But that may not be of much help to the NDA because it had won most urban seats in the February elections.

The scenario is different where people vote by and large on caste lines.

Although local issues like drought in Jehanabad or lack of irrigation facilities in south Bihar are there, caste passions seem to score over more mundane bread-and-butter issues.

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